How to Fail Well: for Nonprofits

Failure is one of the most universally feared experiences human beings share. Certainly, a major reason for this is that, culturally, we are all trained from the time we are small children that there is a right way and wrong way to do just about everything. We go to school to learn, and are taught facts and figures. Then, we’re rewarded for regurgitating them to the teacher’s satisfaction. If we get something wrong, we miss out on the rewards - or, very often, experience negative repercussions. Of course we’re fearful of failure. It’s engineered into from the time we’re very young.

What else could we possibly feel about failure - even when we hear about “fail fast and fail often” from adventurous entrepreneurs - we still have a visceral reaction to the idea of failing at anything.

In fact, the fear of failure makes it into quite a few top ten lists of common fears - in one such list, it’s number 7, nestled between Death (at number 6) and Rejection (at number 8).

You might think, if you’re feeling especially evolved right now, that this fear doesn’t affect you. If that’s the case, check out this list of questions from Tellman Knudson, CHT at PsychCentral:

  • “Do you ever put off doing something because you’re ‘not sure how it will turn out?’”

  • “Do you avoid situations where you will have to try something new in front of people?”

  • “Have you ever put off doing something you know will improve your life, even though you have ‘no good reason’ not to do it?”

Hmmmm. I don’t know about you, but I am a notorious procrastinator - mostly when it’s something I haven’t done before, feels like it has high stakes, or will potentially lead to embarrassment or feeling judged by my peers.


So, what to do?

Fingerpaint Instead of Starting with the Masterpiece

Most of us feel we need to do things perfectly the first time. I suppose this is true if we’re talking about something like, say, skydiving, where a mistake could be a literal life or death situation. But let’s be real, almost everything else (and most definitely almost everything you try in your organization) is not life or death at all. With most things, you have a little wiggle room.

When I teach workshops, I want people to get a real, meaningful result. That’s one reason I ask people to commit to their thoughts with pen and paper as we move through a given process to reach a specific result. ALMOST EVERY TIME I ask people to do this, I have to work through some very serious deer in the headlight moments. They look at me, pleading.

“Sarai! I haven’t had time to think about this for weeks and weeks on end! How am I supposed to work on this now?!” To which I remind them about Parkinson’s Law - that work expands to fit the time allotted. It also contracts to fit the time allotted when the time is short. Making the first mark on a blank sheet of paper can make us freeze or fill us with anxiety. That’s fear, darling. But it doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks.

That brings me to that first principle - approach your creation as a fingerpainting, not a masterpiece. You don’t have to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on your first try. All you need to do is slap some color on a canvas, and you are in business. That is, you can build what’s called a Minimum Viable Product (I call it Minimum Viable Program when I’m talking to Nonprofits) to get something out into the world. A Minimum Viable Program (MVP) is a simple model - simpler than a traditional pilot project, even - that launches a problem-solving service or program into the world.

(FYI - the Mission Canvas is a great way to put your MVP together and get it out into the world, so grab it here).

Here’s the thing - starting is better than not starting at all. Try something and see if it works.

If you’re stuck and struggling to get going, here’s a trick I use to get myself to move forward on something I’m procrastinating: set a timer. That’s simple, right? Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and promise yourself that you’ll spend at least that many minutes on the project, then DO IT. When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. Do you have momentum? Can you keep working on it with less resistance now? Usually, the answer will be yes to both things, and then, you can shout “hoorah!” and keep going.

If you struggle still, set another timer interval and go for it. Think of it like HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) for your productivity - when you put time brackets on your work, you can get more done in less time because you are actually doing the thing instead of worrying about the thing, or avoiding the thing, or trying to look for the thing on Facebook, somehow, oh wait - still avoiding…

Measure Your Progress

Before you launch an MVP, you have to acknowledge that what you’re doing is building a Change Hypothesis. You essentially say, “we think this problem can be solved with this activity, and it will result in this outcome (individual level change).” Your Change Hypothesis must include metrics that allow you to measure whether the change you believe will occur has in fact occurred.

Measurement isn’t always our strong points in the sector. However, you will never learn to fail well if you aren’t able to define and measure metrics that support the outcomes you seek. This is true on multiple levels. First, you need to define metrics that support the individual/personal outcomes from the program itself. Second, you must define metrics that will indicate whether your program is working for the organization overall. Does it cost more to run than you thought? Are people signing up at the rate you imagined? What is really happening underneath the gloss and glow of a new thing?

Learn from Your Results

Once you have build your MVP, launched it, and gathered data based on your selected metrics, you take a moment to assess your results. What has worked? What has not worked? What went as expected? What was surprising? If something isn’t working, what now? What if it is working? What does that mean?

When you have your data results in hand, you get to decide whether to persevere or pivot. You can choose to keep moving forward, expand the MVP, seek more funding, or whatever makes sense - only if your measurements indicate that this is a reasonable way forward.

On the other hand, if you’re not getting the results you want or need, you will get to pivot. A pivot can mean you completely stop the MVP before it costs more ore does more damage. It could mean you change one or more aspects of the MVP, launch again, test again, decide again.

Failing Well is largely about your mindset - and resilience

Failure is not only an option, it is an essential ingredient to making a difference in an ever-changing world. We are not able to innovate or invent or impact anything without taking a chance. How we cultivate safe spaces to fail well is up to us - and to our partners - including funders.

If you want more help failing well…

Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I are holding a free workshop on October 24th, 2018. You can sign up here, and learn more about how to Think Like an Entrepreneur for Your Nonprofit.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! (This is just my favorite infomercial phrase, so forgive me for using so transparently)…she and I are doing this webinar as the first offering in what we believe will be a huge benefit to organizations that want to think and act more entrepreneurially so they can build long-term, strategic funding streams to create viability and sustainability long into the future.

We’re launching a set of services - Entrepreneurial Nonprofit. It kicks off with this webinar, and follows shortly thereafter with a six-week program to help you and your organization put the entrepreneurship awesomeness into action.

Join us!

Sarai Johnson is the founder of Lean Nonprofit and one half of the dynamic duo behind Entrepreneurial Nonprofit. She is a Book Yourself Solid® Certified Coach and GrowthWheel® Certified Business Advisor. She has worked with nonprofits for two decades, and works to improve the nonprofit sector.

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